Eric Barnes, CEO of The Daily Memphian, on philanthropy and the future of local media


Eric Barnes

Barnes

Eric Barnes is CEO of The Daily Memphian, an online daily news source in Memphis that launched in September 2018. Additionally, for 10 years, he’s hosted Behind the Headlines on Memphis’ PBS station, a weekly news show focused on local government, business and the community. Since 2019, he’s hosted The Sidebar, a podcast on The Daily Memphian (and radio show on local radio station WYXR) that focuses on arts, culture and everything in between.

Barnes, who is also publisher of a group of community newspapers in Tennessee, is a former president of the Tennessee Press Association and current president of the American Court & Commercial Newspapers. He joined the Local Media Association board of directors in 2021 and shared this insight about his experience and the local media landscape from his perspective.

The Daily Memphian is a nonprofit, but you have emphasized that philanthropy is not the long-term, primary revenue source for your publication. Can you tell us about your approach to sustainability as a local media organization?

Our goal has always been to become financially sustainable based on subscriptions, and advertising and sponsorships, including events, podcasts and so on. We feel strongly that we don’t want to be a long-term drain on the philanthropic community in Memphis. Memphis is one of the most philanthropic cities in the country, but the resources are finite. And many worthy nonprofits have few if any ways to generate earned income — for example, a homeless shelter or food bank or education program for kids in need. So we feel that people who can pay for our news should. After all, free news is a historic anomaly — people paid for their news for many, many decades. But it’s important to us that we also extend free access to people who can’t — or shouldn’t — pay for a subscription, so we’ve given free access to virtually all the schools in Memphis as well as a growing number of nonprofit organizations.

Tell us about an initiative you either have launched or are planning to launch, that has or will have a positive impact on your company’s future.

We are rolling out a registration-required subscription model in the first quarter. We’re now three [articles] free per month. While we’ve seen very solid subscription growth, the reality of three free per month is that most users come to our site on two to three devices, and they may use multiple browsers (Safari, Facebook’s browser, Twitter’s browser) on those devices. Registration-required will allow us to lock down the site more, as well as begin to target visitors who have a higher propensity to subscribe.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the media industry today?

Overall, I think the consolidation of local newspapers into massive corporations saddled with heavy debt and cutthroat investors is not good. On a local level, the growing number of news deserts — and areas with ghost papers that operate with below minimal staff — is really bad. And getting worse.

What do you think is the greatest opportunity for the media industry today?

I think subscriptions and audience revenue are the greatest opportunity for anyone in the newspaper (or digital newspaper) space. People will pay for news.

Why are you excited to join the LMA Board?

I love that LMA involves so many different types of media organizations. It makes much more interesting idea-sharing. And it seems that so many of LMA’s members are taking on the huge challenges with creative, aggressive, new thinking.